There are some considerable riches to be found in the British repertoire for piano, being explored by Mark Bebbington and Somm. Mark records at a precocious rate, so it is no surprise that when he takes time to chat, he has another disc ready at his busy fingertips.
This time the object of our focus – initially at least – is Arthur Bliss. Even for Mark there were some surprises in store when he embarked upon the first volume. “As I do each CD for Siva Oke, the owner of Somm, we seem to uncover yet more riches in this twentieth-century British repertoire. When I think of all the composers that we have covered, I never expected to find quite the substantial body of piano works as we have with Bliss. I knew that John Ireland had written enough for four CDs, and Frank Bridge enough for three, but when I first agreed to do this Bliss complete cycle I did not know exactly the extent of the piano catalogue. I only knew there was a Piano Sonata from 1953, and that was occasionally played. I didn’t know any of these other pieces, and I think they are very significant, for they shed light enormously on Bliss’s artistic development.”
The composer’s piano music has an important place in Bliss’s output. “I think whereas Bliss the writer for orchestra and of chamber music started out as a kind of iconic ‘new man’ in the 1920s, a kind of enfant terrible, the establishment eventually reigned him in to become the respectable figure that most people associate him with – Master of the Queen’s Music, together with all the work he did for education and the BBC. But with the piano music he remains radical right up until the last complete work, which was written for Louis Kentner in 1971 and is going to be on Volume Two of Somm’s survey. That’s as radical as the 1925 Toccata. There is this discrepancy between the thread of the piano music and the rest of his music, so there is a lovely dichotomy there, which is fascinating and something I have not found with Frank Bridge. We all know the three stages of Bridge’s development, but that’s reflected in everything that he wrote. Arthur Bliss’s piano music is out on a limb, and it’s so transcending of any feeling of Englishness. That’s the thing I love about it – there is so much Stravinsky in those 1925 works, but there is still an identifiable Bliss voice there. But this is a composer who is setting his stall very, very high, and I would happily play nearly all of that music on any recital programme anywhere.”
After writing the 1925 Suite, Bliss had a considerable break from the piano – and Bebbington continues to talk me engagingly through the composer’s career. “Other things interested him, other forms and ways of writing for other instrumental groups and orchestra. All of that meant that when he came back to the piano he did so with a renewed sense of vision and vigour. The thing that struck me forcibly is the ‘Elegy’ from the 1925 Suite, written in homage to his brother and to everyone who fell in the First World War. In a sense I don’t think he ever really recovered from that blow, and even the slow movement of the Piano Sonata from 1952 has this feeling of bleakness and remoteness about it. There’s a quality in Bliss’s music where emotionally he’s definitely saying to the player and the listener, ‘You’re at a distance’. But strangely enough that draws us in even more. It’s the complete antithesis to heart-on-sleeve John Ireland, it’s another world. Paradoxically I think that draws us in at key moments even more, and I mean how can you as a composer begin to sum up the first-hand experience Bliss had of the Great War? He seems to do it by using a degree of musical attachment, and that third movement is written almost explicitly without bar-lines, so that when the chorale starts, visually it looks so strange, and that is reflected in the soundworld, so it’s interesting how the visual and the aural elements are tied together. I think it’s truly remarkable.”
So Bliss is less obviously English and more European? “Much more”, says Mark emphatically. “The background, the move to America, and the marriage to an American wife – all of these I think are significant pointers as to the series of influences. It’s interesting with A Colour Symphony, which is an early work and which was first performed at the Three Choirs Festival – Elgar was present at that and there was a cryptic and slightly acerbic reaction from him at what he thought was far too progressive music. Again it’s not difficult to understand why. In other genres, Bliss changed, but the piano music just remains radical.
“The Piano Concerto did at one stage achieve a degree of prominence because Solomon gave the first performance at Carnegie Hall. It was a big premiere and he wanted to write a virtuoso showpiece. I think the Piano Concerto had its moment, and a lot of Bliss is associated with this slightly enigmatic figure of the time, Noel Mewton-Wood, who was also part of Tippett’s entourage. He performed the concerto incredibly well, and he probably defines it better than anybody else. As a ‘thank you’ to Mewton-Wood, Bliss dedicated the Piano Sonata to him. It is a little bit like Bax’s relationship with Harriet Cohen, only nowhere near as convoluted or involved – it was a purely professional relationship – but perhaps the influence behind some of Bliss’s music comes from Mewton-Wood. Outside the Piano Concerto the solo piano music is just written off, really, by pianists – or, like me, through ignorance!”
Looking at Bebbington’s Somm discography has the effect of making one curious to hear another side of the composer in question. “It does. Take Ivor Gurney: the piano music is a vital and really rich side of his artistic personality that is virtually unknown. And John Ireland, too. It’s great to have the chance to play the Piano Concerto. That was never out of the Proms season at a time.” Does Mark refer to Eric Parkin’s recordings of the solo music, often regarded as a benchmark in this repertoire? “I’ve listened to and made many mental notes on Eric Parkin of course and Alan Rowlands as well – he was the very first in the early 1960s. He studied with Ireland, so there is much to be learned from that, but in particular I have learned from the continuing advice from Bruce Phillips of the John Ireland Trust, who knew Ireland, and who is so saturated in the music not only of Ireland but the music of the period. The one thing Ireland was totally decisive about was that rhythmically things had to be totally in place; it must always be secure. The other thing is that he never really liked fast tempos, so an ‘allegro’ or ‘allegro vivace’ from Ireland is perhaps a ‘moderato’ or a ‘moderato vivace’ of another composer. He felt that pianists rushed his music. The music needs to breathe at all times, have a sense of line, and adherence to dynamic markings as well. You could say that’s so of any composer, but Ireland kept on about how pianists cut rests short, or would add rubato from nowhere, for no good artistic reason for a musical phrase, and he hated it.”
Bebbington’s enthusiasm for his subject is clear, but as well as drawing from the past he has his own input as well. “When Bruce Phillips heard a recital that I gave three or four years ago, he came round afterwards. I didn’t know him then and he said, ‘Do you play John Ireland’s music?’ Like every impoverished young pianist I said ‘yes’ when I didn’t really know or play any of it, but I thought maybe this would lead to something! He duly phoned me the day afterwards and said would I be interested in doing a CD of John Ireland, and it leapt from there. I learned the music from scratch. It was not in my blood, nor was the Bridge; you don’t learn this music at college. It has become a very significant part of what I do only in the last few years. I played Ireland in Bordeaux, at the opera house in October. They loved it! I did the London Pieces, and they sat really well next to a group of Debussy preludes. The reviews were so satisfying: ‘how fantastic to hear an example of English impressionism alongside our native Impressionism’.”
Looking ahead, there will be a second volume of Bliss “to be released later this year  I think. “We also did an interesting disc of some of the piano music of Reginald King, a forgotten composer at the lighter end of the genre, a kind of Billy Mayerl, and it’s so incredibly beautifully written and very appealing to do. There are hidden gems. During his day King was something of a ‘light music’ hero. So it’s ongoing really, this fantastic, stimulating and interesting music; it inspires you to want to continue! I am so grateful to Siva and Somm. We set a crazy recording schedule from one year to the next, but we are so behind each other that it works amazingly well.”
Mark’s recitals are never less than interesting, the most recent prior to our interview mixing Ireland, Debussy, Bridge and Liszt. “I was asked to include the Bridge for those three pieces were written in 1912, a centenary performance. Almost invariably I am asked to include a major British work. Venues are waking up to the fact that this music is worth listening to, to the fact that the music is of such good quality!”
That leads us neatly to Mark’s recent recording of the recently discovered Fantasia for piano and orchestra of Vaughan Williams. “That was an amazing story and it came about because Robert Matthew-Walker is such a character. He had reviewed something of mine in Musical Opinion, and at the end he put ‘does Somm and Mark Bebbington know of the early Vaughan Williams Fantasia?’. Bruce got on the phone to me, he had spoken to the RVW Trust, and they knew of it, but nobody knew any more. So within 48 hours I was at the British Library to see the manuscript. Any musician only needs to look at one page to know that it’s worth doing. The attention to detail, the fastidious nature of the piano writing alone, they taught me it was worth doing, and from the orchestral writing it looked like a kind of symphonic poem masquerading effectively as a piano concerto. It was too good not to do! So we very quickly ring-fenced it and the RVW Trust was very good: this will only be a Bebbington-Somm project. We managed to do it and put the recording in place in a period that was to everyone’s satisfaction. It gave me time to be able to learn it, and it gave us time to think about what we might couple it with. We chose William Mathias piano concertos, and they are very interesting pieces – again, he’s a neglected figure!”
Since our chat Bebbington’s fourth volume of John Ireland’s piano music has become available, on Somm of course. It is fair to assume that many more gems of British keyboard work will follow!